I’m procrastinating from my “real work” to write this post. I have exactly a week to get my annotated bibliography assignment done but sometimes a small diversion can be a good thing, right? Actually, this post is all about attention and why it’s so hard to stay on task.
We know that we are living in the attention economy. Social media and the GAFA-opoly (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) seek to divert our attention and keep us scrolling through our feeds. It might be bad for us but it’s good for their business model. No surprises there. Yet, what about the moral implications of losing the skill set known as paying attention?
That was one of the questions I encountered while reading through Shannon Vallor’s paper, Moral Deskilling and Upskilling in a New Machine Age. Vallor explores ways in which we are losing our moral skills to technology. She argues that morality is a skill that requires practice and we gain this through seeing it modelled in others, through feedback and through opportunities to take moral actions. In outsourcing moral judgements and duties to machines, we risk losing our ability to be able to act morally. In contrast, she also explores the idea that machines might enhance our moral skills by augmenting our humanity.
One area we risk losing is our ability to pay attention. This is a concern for Vallor from a moral perspective because if we can’t pay attention or count on others to pay attention, we debase our humanity. Imagine losing the ability to relate to someone during a time of crisis or an important moment because you just cannot stay in the moment with them. We’re not so far off from this. Think about all the times you’re in a face to face meeting, at a dinner, in a social situation, a classroom or anywhere that requires your presence, and you just can’t seem to put your phone away. Whether it’s you or some you’re with, this behaviour happens all the time.
Vallor doesn’t necessarily spell out answers but hints that technology could perhaps be deployed as part of the solution rather than a contributor to the problem. This would require the financial incentives for tech companies to be different but assuming that could happen, maybe we can use the technology to extend our humanity. If we take this issue from a cognitive angle, we may already be doing this to a certain degree.
Karl Friston is a neuroscientist who has pioneered a lot of big ideas, including the free energy principle and the concept of “active inference” – the idea that we are continuously scanning our environments and adjusting our mental models of the world in real time. This to me is the essence of paying attention. Friston says we do this by being selective about the data sets we chose to process at any given moment. (Kosner)
In order to pay attention, we focus on what matters.
Friston and Vallor are coming from different disciplines and perspectives but aligning on similar themes. Technology has enabled a much greater field of things to pay attention to siphoning attention in many cases. However, we can also use technology to augment our ability to pay attention by using technologies to foster collaborations and by offsetting our cognitive load. We do this in a number of ways already - storing numbers in our phone rather than remembering them or searching for information on platforms like Wikipedia when we need it. Friston has deployed his own theory, and created a "regimented routine" to protect his time - a Marcov blanket - that's allowed him to be ultra productive. As he puts it, “technology is the natural extension of active inference beyond the single person.” (Kosner)
Which brings me to this cozy concept….
“In statistics and machine learning, the Markov blanket for a node in a graphical model contains all the variables that shield the node from the rest of the network. This means that the Markov blanket of a node is the only knowledge needed to predict the behavior of that node and its children.” (Wikipedia)
To be shielded from the network – that’s what I need. Back to the assignment.
“Markov Blanket.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markov_blanket.
Kosner, A. W. (n.d.). The Mind at Work: Karl Friston on the brain’s surprising energy. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from https://blog.dropbox.com/topics/work-culture/the-mind-at-work--karl-friston-on-the-brain-s-surprising-energy
Vallor, S. (2015). Moral Deskilling and Upskilling in a New Machine Age: Reflections on the Ambiguous Future of Character. Philosophy & Technology, 28(1), 107–124. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-014-0156-9